INDIANAPOLIS — Many Hoosiers will receive mailed information this month about the 2020 census, which allows residents to respond online for the first time.
Next year, state legislatures across the country will use census population data to draw district maps, impacting how people will be represented at the state and national levels.
But events over the summer and during the General Assembly that ended March 12 did little to persuade lawmakers to change how Indiana draws its maps. Every bill related to redistricting died in committee.
Democrats called the lack of legislation one of the biggest missed opportunities of the session. Sen. Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, said the wishes of Hoosiers hadn’t been heeded.
“It’s a real shame that another 10 years is going to go by before we take up, again, the issue of redistricting reform,” said Lanane, who authored a redistricting bill. “They didn’t give bills a hearing or any discussion whatsoever.”
Advocates for redistricting reform include Julia Vaughn, who conducted events with the organization Common Cause to raise awareness about redistricting. At a statehouse event, about a dozen lawmakers pledged to redefine the process.
“It was definitely a wasted opportunity here, and there was just no sense of urgency among legislators about this issue,” Vaughn said.
The organization had two requests for redistricting: a nonpartisan commission charged with creating maps and a public mapping website.
Vaughn said she worked with state Sen. Greg Walker, R-Columbus, the chair of the elections committee, to craft a bill creating a public mapping website. To gain more traction among legislators, Vaughn said, provisions about making all data public and disclosing mapping consultants weren’t included.
Four Senate bills and one House bill never received a hearing, regardless of whether the author was a Republican or a Democrat.
“I think the forces in the Republican supermajority, who believe that this is just the way things are supposed to be, they don’t remember a time when their party wasn’t in charge,” Vaughn said. “Partisan gerrymandering is just part of the game, and they’re the folks winning the game right now.”
An Indiana study commission in 2016 recommended a non-partisan commission, which several states use, to redraw legislative and congressional districts. Critics pushed the legislature to study the issue and change the redistricting process before the 2020 census, pointing to results from the last census.
The Republican super-majority in the legislature emerged after GOP members drew new districts following the 2010 census, growing their membership by nine and gaining a U.S. House seat. Critics said many districts were drawn in irregular shapes that isolate bastions of Democratic support and consolidate Republican voting majorities.
To oppose this partisanship, Vaughn said, Common Cause will raise funds to create its own website and mapping competition, where constituents can try drawing their own maps. A series of public meetings will be planned to see whether communities prioritize compactness, or small districts, or competitiveness where a candidate from any party could win the district.
“Citizens are going to have to take control of this process, and we intend to give them the tools so they can have a meaningful role to play in redistricting next year,” Vaughn said. “The General Assembly could ignore our efforts, but I think doing so would be potentially harmful to them politically.”
The state’s longest-serving House Speaker, Brian Bosma, stepped down in the last days of the session, handing the reins to Todd Huston, R-Hamilton County. In the 2021 session, Huston will oversee creation of the biennial budget and will also have the responsibility of redrawing legislative and congressional maps.
During the 2020 General Assembly, Huston didn’t seem concerned about the redistricting process. Instead, he focused on other issues, such as economic fallout from the coronavirus in the state.
“We’ve handled it (redistricting) well, I think, in the past,” Huston said. “We’ve been well-regarded for how we’ve handled redistricting, and I look forward to making sure we have a fair, transparent process.”
‘OPEN AND TRANSPARENT’
He pledged that the process would be collaborative.
“I’m trying to make sure we buttoned-down shop in the next couple of days, so I haven’t really given a lot of thought to that,” Huston said. “But, again, I’ve tried to be someone that’s open and transparent, and we’ll try and have that process moving forward.”
Vaughn disputed that the last process worked well, calling it a “failed system” that “limited political competition.”
“They should go out to some of the apartment complexes (in Indianapolis Senate District 26) and talk to those people and see if they feel represented in the Indiana General Assembly,” Vaughn said.
Lack of connection with elected representatives contributed in recent elections to low voter turnout, candidates running unopposed and no accountability for incumbents, Vaughn said.
“There’s plenty of evidence that the old system works great for super-majorities. … But it’s not working for voters across Indiana,” she added. “It’s not surprising to me that they (Republican leaders) don’t see the problems. But I think they’re forgetting to talk to the people who are most impacted by redistricting: the voters.”